Part 3: A Way Forward
In the first two posts of this series, I attempted to lay out a broad history and nuanced position toward the issues surrounding religious pluralism today. As has been pointed out many times before, such work is inherently arbitrary in that it seeks to limit such a broad position. None the less, I attempted this feat with one purpose in mind. My goal has been to show, as the title of my series relays, the evolution of religion. At this point, however, I feel the need, for humility’s sake, to take a step back.
In this final post of the series, I want to lay out a pragmatic approach for mankind in relation to the plurality of religion in our world today. This approach will be centered around the fostering of humility and relationship. This post will not be so focused on definitions or broad generalizations, as my first two. Concurrently, this post will be shorter than my previous two. I would like the reader to see my first two posts, as simply a doorway to step into the topic which I will attempt to breach in this post. For sure, there are many doorways one could travel through to reach this position. Some of which may be more effective than the one I have presented. I simply laid forth, as best I could, the path for which I took.
To say that religion is an ever evolving entity is by nature quite abstract and convoluted. The very term “evolution” carries with it much baggage that is inapplicable to the intent of my thesis. When one speaks of the evolution of religion, it must be understood what can and cannot be inferred in any authoritative way. First it must be fleshed out that the evolution for which I speak is in revelation of the uncontainable, not in any cultural or institutional sense. My goal is not to speak to the evolving of religious institutions, as such a task would be far beyond my abilities. Rather, it is to acknowledge the evolution of personal revelation within those who seek to understand and relate to transcendence. To be more clear, my goal is to acknowledge that mankind has always sought to better understand and relate to a God that is far beyond his reach. As such that God has continually given mankind glimpses of himself through divine sparks of revelation. It is only obvious then, that as the sum of those revelations grows, so too does the understanding man.
At this point I would like to dwell for a moment on our understanding of God. It is agreed on, in some form, by every religious tradition, that the divine experiences for which man has touched have originated from a source far above the grasp of mans conception. To put it more bluntly, every religious tradition affirms that we know very little of the infinitude that is God. In fact, I would go as far as to say that an inherent aspect of religious experience is an understanding of how minute the picture or revelation received really is. It has been said that an experience of the divine is like a drop of water in the desert. It is only meant to stir ones thirst for more. Concurrently, an experience of such, from such an undefinable source, can only itself remain undefinable. None the less, it is man’s nature to try.
This is where religion, in its institutional form, comes into play. The institution of religion places a linguistic framework around the experience to help man to define what has happened. It must be noted that this is not a negative function, but rather a necessity. Without a definition, in linguistic terms, it is quite impossible for man to form a relationship to the source of the experience. It must also be noted that religious experience is not an ever present reality. Each drop of experience relates more “truth” and must sustain the individual whom experienced it. It is the time between these experiences that one is compelled to plumb the depths of the revelation given.
The linguistic traditions, supplied by the religious institutions of man, aid the individual in their search for understanding and relationship. This distinction between religious experience and religious institutions is important. It is quite possible to make value judgments of the language for which the various religious institutions construct. Each linguistic tradition is formulated from the combined experiences of a localized group. As such, there are inherent strengths and weaknesses to each tradition. This is not to say that it is a simple task to evaluate the linguistic constructs of any religious institution. Any attempt to do so would require an in depth understanding of the people and culture for which each tradition is grounded. This is why, in my opinion, evaluation of these traditions is best left to be done from within, though there is certainly value in outside perspective.
This evaluation, however, must stop at the institutional level. To attempt to evaluate the personal religious experience of another is quite a different task. Such a task is dangerous, arrogant, and highly unproductive. It must always be remembered that the source of these experiences is far beyond the grasp of our intellectual understanding. What does this mean in a practical sense? It means that one can evaluate, for instance, the religious tradition that interpreted a divine experience as a call to violence. Via the constructs of human reasoning one can determine that such an interpretation must be an inferior linguistic traditional construct. One cannot, however, presume that the human beings that followed such a construct have received an inferior religious experience.
One might argue that this is only a semantic difference. This, however, is not the case. The pragmatic value in making this distinction is the continued realization of the inherent human vulnerability of ones own religious linguistic tradition. This is vital in the pluralistic world for which we live. It is only through humility that one can truly grasp the most of the divine.
This leads me to my final point. Religious scholar Diana Eck has said,
“Whoever knows only one religion is unlikely to understand what religion is about”
While I cannot speak to the entirety of her point, I do feel that she has tapped into an important practical aspect of religious pluralism. If the source of all human religious experience is far greater than the comprehension of mankind, then it only follows that the combined revelations of mankind holistically, paints a fuller picture than when seen through a dichotomy. In other words, we can only gain in our quest to understand and relate to the divine by seeking out and learning from the experiences of others who have touched its essence (I apologize for the constant vacillation of terms in relation to God. It is often difficult when speaking on this matter to confidently choose only one term.). If it is truly ones desire to understand and relate more fully to God, then it seems only natural to seek out others who are like-minded. I understand that this can sometimes be a tricky proposition. Each experience is couched in a religious linguistic tradition, and often those traditions are mutually exclusive. There is, however, a way to sort through the peculiars of each tradition and find the essence of revelation.
The way for this clarity to be found is through relationship. It is only when we commune with others, and our hearts become one, that we can find the essence of the revelation for which they have received. We will of course interpret that revelation through our own tradition, but we will have gained in our understanding of the one who is beyond comprehension.
This post, in many ways, has taken a step back from the ambitious generalizations of my previous ones. As I laid out previously, this was intentional. I have tried to avoid making value judgements on religious traditions. This is not to say that there is no value in doing so. I feel, however, that this is best left to others far more qualified than myself.
As I have taken this journey, being enriched by the experiences of others both within and outside of my tradition, I have often reevaluated the linguistic tradition that I have used to define experiences of God. This I believe is a natural outcome of gaining a further understanding of the God in whom I seek. Sometimes I have found it more difficult than others to understand the heart of religious experience. Specifically, a Buddhist friend comes to mind. It seems the linguistic mountain between us was larger than most. However, I have never been disappointed by the outcome no matter how difficult the journey. Each and every relationship has added a drop to my now ever growing lake of understanding of God. With each drop I am encouraged by the level of intimacy gained, while also humbled at the sheer depth of the impending ocean. My hope is that in sharing the journey that has brought me to where I am today I have better illuminated a path for others who wish to follow. I truly believe in the relevancy of my position for today. At no other time in history has such a great wealth of opportunity for cross religious investigation been prevelant. Because of the modern tools of information sharing, it is easier than ever to gain perspective from other’s experiences. This is not to dismiss the potential risk involved in such excursions, but rather to highlight the possibilities of growth.